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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Hand written version of this blog post, plus fountain pen, and laptop mid typing up

Some years ago I started using fountain pens for my handwriting. Not old vintage pens, but newly purchased models. At first I was fascinated by them as amazingly engineered beautiful pieces of art. But as I used them more and more I found that they helped me with my creative work, helping me to produce extended pieces of writing far more effectively than typing straight into a computer.

Of course you don’t need to be using a fountain pen to produce good handwritten work. But I find them to be the easiest and most comfortable writing experience I’ve ever used, far easier and more effortless to write with than e.g. a Biro. I also find them more comfortable with my neurological illness hands, needing much less physical effort to write with. Also on environmental grounds they can be a very good option if you write a lot, especially if they can be filled directly from bottled ink, which is the type of fountain pen I prefer to use.

I used to write extended text typing straight into Microsoft Word on the computer, especially for more scientific type reports. But now I am very prone to just staring at the blank screen, or editing the text too much as I type, when I should be getting the core words down.

I do find that distraction free writing apps like Ulysses help me to an extent. But by far the best solution I’ve found is to hand write first drafts. Again I start with a blank page before me, typically a ruled A5 notepad, but that doesn’t stop me this time. Even with just a rough initial idea of where I’m going I quickly write loads of words, including writing on aspects of the topic that I hadn’t anticipated writing about beforehand.

I use this method for longer academic paper writing as well as smaller pieces such as blog posts. For example I can hand write a 1000 word blog post in 10 minutes or less. It just takes me a few minutes then to type it up, editing quickly as I go, and I’m done.

Now this technique won’t suit everyone. I’m not even sure why it works so well for me. Yes I like the experience of writing with good pens, but I think it’s more that hand writing like this puts me into a very relaxed but still focused frame of mind. And that is highly conducive for generating good word content.

I definitely wouldn’t suggest that everyone rushes out to buy a fountain pen. But maybe some might benefit from turning away from the computer screen and its temptations – social media, web surfing, and extensive editing options in Microsoft Word – and trying a more traditional approach of generating words.

If after reading this you do want to try out fountain pens there are many options, ranging from extremely low cost to very expensive. Cartridge filled ones can be a good entry level option, but piston filled ones that use bottled ink can be greenest. My neurological illness hands cope very well with piston fillers, including filling from bottled ink. My top favourite fountain pens are currently two Italian ones, made by Visconti and Leonardo, and then in 3rd place my trusty Lamy 2000, a German design that has been in production ever since 1966, and still looks futuristic, as well as being a thoroughly reliable and comfortable writer.

Fountain pens benefit from thicker paper than standard printer/copy paper. I tend to use refillable Atoma-style journals, hand writing each draft, then taking out the pages (Atoma pages can be removed and reinserted as much as you want), typing it up, then discarding the original hand written version.

In the UK good online retailers of fountain pens include Cult Pens and Pure Pens. In North America Goulet Pens is a very reliable firm to deal with.

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Every few years I head to the Edinburgh Book Festival for a fun flying visit. Last time in 2013 was to see Neil Gaiman talk, and also the Iain Banks memorial event. This time I was there to see Ian Rankin talk about the return of Rebus, with a new novel, and a recent short story collection. Because of my MS-like illness, which means I need to use my wheelchair while in Edinburgh, it is easiest to drive down from Dundee. And because I need to rest after and before travelling it makes sense to stay in a hotel the night before and after. Which is costly, but we think is worth it for the treat. We make a real break of it.

So last night after Afternoon Tea at Edinburgh’s famous Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street we got a taxi to Charlotte Square, arriving at about 6.50pm. The site was packed, with people there to attend author talks, browse in the bookshops, and soak up the friendly atmosphere. Our first stop was to go to the two bookshops, where I bought a few books: one a Gaelic children’s book (I’m learning the language, slowly), and also two other books I’d been wanting to get for a while, on astronomy and the history of Edinburgh.

By 7.45pm we were waiting in the queue for people with reserved seats (mainly disabled people like me) and were in in good time before the event started at 8.15pm. As usual we had good front row seats, and a good view of the speakers: Ian Rankin, and Phill Jupitus who would be chatting to him for the hour.

Ian opened the event by reading an extract from his latest soon to be published Rebus novel Even Dogs in the Wild. This was interesting, and quite gripping, and made me want to read the book when it comes out. Indeed the whole event made me want to read more of the Rebus novels – I’ve read a lot of them, but not all – and also read (and reread where necessary) the short stories. I particularly liked the discussion after this opening read through about Rebus’s relationship with the gangster ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty, which Ian likened to Holmes and Moriarty. Coincidentally I’m currently reading Anthony Horowitz’s Moriarty.

After this opening section there was a more general discussion. Indeed I was relieved that they didn’t just talk about the new novel, but covered a much wider range of subjects, including as the book festival entry for the event had indicated the recent short story collection The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories. As a big fan of short stories – partly for the form, partly because they are often easier for me to read due to memory and reading problems from my neurological disease – I was particularly interested in what Ian said about the joy of writing them, and seeing a new artefact as the end product in a pretty quick time, as opposed to the marathon many months writing that each new novel requires.

One of the most interesting sections of the talk for me was where Ian reflected on his breaks from Rebus, both more recently and in the past. His recent break was prompted by deaths in recent years of a number of friends, all at fairly young ages. So he didn’t sign a new contract for a new novel then, but took the chance to do fun things, including other types of writing – like scifi – that he normally doesn’t do, but likes to. This was picked up on to an extent in one of the questions at the end. It was a bit sad that even a very successful writer like Ian Rankin feels the pressure to write what will sell, and doesn’t have the time to write other perhaps more experimental works. But the benefits of his break were apparent.

I also liked his discussion of the writing process, both in terms of how many hours he works on the first draft of a novel, and also how he discovers plot and character through his writing. He spoke of an example where he had advance plotted a novel to great detail, and his agent loved the concept, but Ian felt no desire to write it after sorting out everything so much in advance! I don’t write fiction, but in my academic writing I often find that I am feeling my way through the writing process, coming up with new thoughts and ideas by writing, and it’s a process that I enjoy too. I could also relate to his reflections on the importance of getting away from modern pressures to write. He goes to Cromarty (“no wifi”) and finds that in a secluded environment the writing process can flow extremely effectively. He also knows of other writers who play white noise in their ears to chill out the sound of the modern world while writing.

Quite a large chunk of the talk was about Ian’s love of music, including his experiences being in a band. For quite a while there I thought Phill was going to try to coerce him to sing, but Ian dodged that, though he did share some of his lyrics with us – very dark and gloomy, and quite in keeping with much of his later writing as a crime novelist! He also shared some entertaining reflections on touring life from his brief experiences of that. And he mused on how he had been so tempted to buy a record shop …

Returning to the writing craft one interesting observation Ian made fairly late on in the talk was that he doesn’t like to over research books, to the extent of filling them with “look what I found out!” stuff in the say way that some other writers do, including in the crime genre. Though having said that, a constant running joke throughout the event was his struggle to keep up with the changing police situation e.g. current retirement age for police officers, location of CID units, even the terminology used. Phill joked that it was almost as if the Scottish police were deliberately trying to foil Ian’s writing.

There were only limited questions at the end, in the last ten minutes, but they were interesting, and all sparked off lengthy responses from Ian. Indeed during the talk Phill was a fairly gentle interviewer, typically providing a short starting point that Ian could use to explore an issue in more depth.

We skipped the signing at the end, though I’d brought a paperback copy of the recent short story collection just in case I decided to stay and get it signed. But we had a great time. And, as I said, I am very much looking forward to reading more Rebus on my Kindle (the main way I have to read now due to the brain damage and reading problems it causes). Though I think I’ll start with the short stories, because those are so approachable for me. Many I have read before, but a lot I haven’t, and should enjoy them all.

So thanks Ian! And Phill!

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